Category: Immigration Reform

Pre-Budget Submission Returning Emigrants

Senator Billy Lawless

Senator Billy Lawless Pre-Budget Submission (PDF – Click on link to view or download).

Since 2009, 193,200 people between the ages of 15 and 24 have left Ireland. Although the number of young people leaving in the year up to end of April 2014 has dropped, the latest available figures show that about 29,000 of those that emigrated in this period were students, an increase in this category of over 8,000 on the previous year. These figures also show that 47% of all emigrants had a degree or third level qualification.

In March 2014, the then Minister for Education and Skills announced that children of Irish emigrants, who have spent 5 years in primary or post-primary school in Ireland, will qualify for EU level fees at Irish Universities and third level institutions for undergraduate courses from the 2014/15 academic year. This move, while welcome, does not serve a person who may have emigrated with their children either at the start of recession or before and now want to return. Their children would qualify for the merit programme for scholarships to US colleges but, because they are Irish citizens, they cannot avail of any scholarship in the United States. If they come back to Ireland they would have to pay almost full fees to attend an Irish university.

There are other problems which face returning citizens that could be resolved with limited additional budgetary allocation to the relevant departments.

  • Absence of a single point of online website that could provide clear information for returning emigrants accessing services;
  • Enrolment Policies of Primary Schools that can have a discriminatory effect;
  • Car Insurance and non-transferability of no claims bonus;
  • Conversion of foreign drivers licences to Irish drivers licences;
  • Government, Landlord and Banking demands for requiring evidence ofutility bills as proof of address;

While small issues, they can act as significant barriers to enticing returning emigrants as well as integrating returning emigrants back into the Irish state. My submission also calls for the implementation of previous recommendations which would help ensure these, and subsequent issues can be addressed.

1 Strategy for return migration

Given the current review of policy on the Diaspora, it is important that provision is made within the new policy framework to develop and implement a strategy to facilitate return migration. This strategy to facilitate return migration requires a coordinated and cross-cutting policy approach to address the current barriers and obstacles to return. It also requires an action plan with adequate resources to implement the actions and to incentivise, support and facilitate young Irish emigrants to return to Ireland,
as the economy continues to recover.

2. Emigrant Policy Proofing

There should be policy-proofing of Irish social policies that impact
negatively on emigrants, before and after they leave Ireland, and to make recommendations on how these issues can be addressed.

3. Resourcing

Sufficient resources are required to ensure the Diaspora policy is fully implemented, and provision should be made for rigorous review and monitoring, to ensure it is effective.

4.  Regional Strategy

Stimulate investment and foster employment in the regions, (outside the major cities) to encourage young Irish emigrants to return home.

5. Database

Establish a register or database of skilled Irish emigrants abroad to
facilitate emigrants to return, if there is job creation within a specific area that relates to their occupation or field.

6. Immigration Centres

Foster closer connections between Ireland and its emigrants through continued investment and funding in immigration centres abroad and support groups in Ireland for returning emigrants and the enhancement of the online mechanisms.

7. Voting Rights

Extend voting rights to emigrants in Irish Presidential elections.

Billy Lawless’s speech to the Ireland Network USA Annual Conference Chicago

Ireland Network USA Annual Conference Chicago

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am absolutely delighted to be here with you today, for what is my first Ireland Network USA conference, since my appointment as Senator for the Global Irish last summer.

I am deeply honoured to be the first emigrant Senator to be appointed to Seanad Eireann – the Irish Senate – to give official voice to the millions of Irish men and women, who left Ireland’s shores, but who never forgot, the land of their birth, or lost their innate sense of Irish identity.

My appointment by our former Taoiseach Enda Kenny was an official and welcome nod to our diaspora, and an acknowledgement that the people of our proud and ancient island, desire a modern and mature relationship with their fellow Irishmen and women living abroad. I am also delighted to say that our new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has reaffirmed to me directly his own steadfast commitment to you,o ur diaspora.

Like countless men and women before me I left Ireland in 1998, to begin a new life for myself and my family in the United States. Ireland and the United States of America share a deep and enduring bond, forged over the centuries in common kinship and shared values. Over 34 million Americans today claim Irish ancestry, many of whom are descendent from the more than 1 million desperate men and women, who fled famine-ravished Ireland during An Gorta Mór.

When President John F. Kennedy addressed the Oireachtas in June 1963 he stated:
And so it is that our two nations, divided by distance, have been united by history. No people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom than the people of the United States. And no country contributed more to building my own, than your sons and daughters. They came to our shores in a mixture of hope and agony, and I would not underrate the difficulties of their course once they arrived.

When they arrived in America the Irish faced a cold welcome – not unlike that received by today’s desperate immigrants and refugees fleeing war and famine – but despite that, the Irish set about building a new life for themselves, and in the process helped to build the United States of America, and in particular left their indelible mark on the fabric, of this most American of cities- Chicago.

I feel particularly at home here at the INUSA Chicago conference, as I made my own mark in this very city, when I moved here to open an Irish themed pub in Wrigleyville 20 years ago.
It was here that I encountered first hand so many of the Irish undocumented who call this country, home, and witnessed the pain caused by a broken immigration system that hurts businesses and divides families. Over a decade ago, I began championing meaningful immigration reform and I continue that work today in my new role as Senator.

As we all know, immigration is once again a hot button issue in America’s national discourse. Last week’s announcement that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), will be phased out for its 800,000 young recipients was a particular gut punch, to those of us who worked so hard to see the program implemented under President Obama. It only added to a litany of unfortunate actions, against immigrants and refugees including the Travel Ban, threats to withhold federal funds from Sanctuary – or better put, Welcoming – jurisdictions, and the presidential pardon for an Arizona sheriff known for his discriminatory practices against immigrants seeking a better life.
There are mixed signals as to whether Congress will act in the next six months to rectify this terrible wrong.

Friends, in these challenging times I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Junior when he said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
I will continue to advocate for the least amongst us and am inspired daily by the selfless determination, of so many ordinary individuals and grassroots organizations -in the Irish community and beyond – who are heeding the call to action and are rejecting a vision of America that is inward looking and myopic for an America that is inclusive and an example for the world.

Poll after poll has shown that the vast majority of Americans – 74% – support common sense immigration reform – including a majority of Republicans I might add. The American people clearly want a solution that secures the border but provides a pathway to legal status for the 11 million here without papers. I ask you when has it ever been Republican policy, to not allow people to pay tax?
I am confident that a nation founded by immigrants and forged in the ideals of liberty and fairness can find a solution that is fair to the rule of law and to those seeking a better life.

Ireland too faces her own challenges today, none more so than the implications of Brexit, which could affect the wellbeing of every man, woman and child on the island. As we move forward, the Irish government is determined to keep the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland open, preserve the hard fought peace on our island, and mitigate the economic impact of one of our largest trading partners exiting the EU.

In an era of global citizenship, where people are more mobile and nations more interdependent, Ireland has made her choice to look outward and to embrace not only her place among the nations but her diaspora living overseas.
The revolutionaries of 1916 called for us to ‘cherish all the children of the nation equally’. Today’s open and inclusive Ireland is fulfilling the marker set down by the architects of our Republic, by redefining the meaning of nationhood and is reaching out to our diaspora in ways that were never done before. My appointment as Senator for the Diaspora is proof that your voice is being heard in the corridors of power in Leinster House and is only the beginning.

I have travelled to many American cities since my appointment, and have listened to the concerns of Irish citizens living here, and I am pleased to say that Dublin is listening to them now, too. The Irish government recently announced that it will hold a referendum on Voting Rights for the Diaspora in Irish presidential elections. This is an important first step in enfranchising all Irish passport holders living overseas and in Northern Ireland. I have been proud to advocate for this issue as a founding member of Voting and have always said that if 24 of the 28 members states in the EU can do it then so can we.

It is my job to highlight important issues affecting emigrants living overseas and those returning to Ireland, so I encourage all of you to reach out to me with your ideas and your concerns.
It doesn’t need repeating here today that Ireland has had a long and storied history of emigration, and it continues unabated today. If you stand in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood or in Yonkers you’re as likely to hear a brogue today as you were 100 years ago. The Irish continue to make their unique mark on the United States and in countries the world over. From India to Israel, from Dubai to Denmark, Irish citizens are moving, innovating and working in every conceivable industry and field.

I am particularly impressed by the Ireland Network USA with its myriad of local chapters, including Chicago, bringing together Irish and Irish American professionals and business people from every field, to celebrate their Irish identity and develop deeper ties. The Americans may have coined the phrase ‘networking’ but the Irish were masters at it before it was even uttered.

As a people we are naturally gifted with the gab and excel at making that personal connection with every other Irish person we meet. How often have you met someone from home who will rattle off a list of names until you land on a common denominator – a person to whom you both connect and who arguably binds you to the stranger you just met. The ancient tribal Celtic heart still beats strong under a modern façade.

The Ireland Network USA is in many ways a modern Irish tribe. It fosters relationships among its kin, encourages trade and enterprise within its boundaries and beyond, and binds its people to the land of their birth.

In closing I want to commend the INUSA for a wonderfully successful conference and for all of the work that you do to promote Ireland and foster Irish identity in the United States. To quote an ancient Irish saying:
Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.

Under the shelter of each other, people survive.

Under your leadership the connection between Ireland and the United States not only survives it thrives.

Go raibh mile mhaith agaibh. Thank you.

Billy Lawless: the former dairy farmer turned senator for the Irish diaspora

By Maria Moynihan on 08 June 2017,

Former dairy farmer Billy Lawless has become one of Chicago’s most successful restaurateurs. He wants to bring that same drive to his role as senator for the Irish diaspora, writes Maria Moynihan.

It’s been 40 years since Billy Lawless was interviewed by The Irish Farmers Journal. “We were in liquid milk in Galway city,” he explains, as he settles behind his desk at Seanad Éireann, “and I was rowing for Ireland at the time.”

An update, then, is somewhat overdue.

Because who could have predicted back then that Billy would become the first senator for the diaspora because of his work for the undocumented Irish in the United States, having immigrated there himself 20 years ago: going on to become one of Chicago’s most successful restaurateurs, employing over 300 people.


Among the framed family photos on the window sill, we spot one of Billy and his wife Anne with Barack Obama, snapped when he introduced the then-US president at a rally on immigration reform in the Windy City in 2014.

A long way from Dangan on the outskirts of Galway city – where the university playing pitches are today and where the Lawless family once farmed.

His mother, Nelly Fitzgerald, moved to Galway from Clonakilty in the 1940s and, according to Billy, “introduced, single-handedly actually, the small chick to all of the West of Ireland and the Aran Islands”.

“They used to call her Bean Na gCearc,” he smiles of the relationship she built up with the farmers’ wives that she advised on poultry keeping. “She was the first woman in Galway to have a government car.”

His father, Tom Lawless, was similarly “ahead of his time”, despite having left school at just 11, after his father died. With innovations like a portable petrol four-unit milking machine, he built up a successful liquid-milk business, supplying local hotels like the Skeffington Arms and the Great Southern on Eyre Square.

long arms

“That’s where I got my long arms from,” laughs Billy of how farming lent itself to his later rowing career. “Lifting six-gallon cans up three flights of stairs into the restaurants.”

With an outlying farm in Feeragh as well, Billy built up the business, but after marrying at 20 (“A much older woman: she was 21!”) and starting their family, he decided to sell up in 1977. “But I did love it,” he reflects, “it was a tough decision for me to make.”

Given his exposure to the hospitality trade through the milk business, perhaps it’s no surprise he went that route, buying his first pub, The Gallows, on Prospect Hill and gradually building his portfolio to include The Tribesman and Trigger Martyn’s on Shop St, and later The 12 Pins hotel in Barna, as well as becoming president of the Vintners Federation en route.

He also went into forestry, first in Woodford and later in Pettigo in Co Donegal. But yet?

“There was always a yen to open a business in the States and see could I hack it,” admits Billy, who finally took the plunge when his daughter got a college rowing scholarship in Massachusetts.

“I said: ‘Do you know what? That’s a sign,” he says, explaining how he, Anne and their four children, Billy Jr, John Paul, Amy and Clodagh, immigrated to the States on 1 January 1998 on a business visa after selling The 12 Pins.

“I was 47 years of age,” he says. “I remember my accountant saying to my solicitor: ‘Ah, he’ll be back, Billy. It’s just a fad.’ And I suppose if you had sat down and thought about it… man it was a monumental move. Lock, stock and barrel.”


While Boston was the most obvious choice to set up in business, a trip to Chicago turned Billy’s head towards the mid-west, and he opened his first pub, The Irish Oak, just 100 yards from Wrigley Field, home of the famed Chicago Cubs.

“I didn’t even know who the Cubs were,” he admits, explaining that many people thought it was “hilarious opening an Irish pub in the middle of the holy grail of baseball”.

Clearly they were mistaken.

Today, Billy runs one of Chicago’s leading fine-dining restaurateurs, with The Gage and Acanto on Michigan Avenue, along with the Dearborn Tavern across from City Hall. He, however, credits his children with the progression of the business: all four are involved, while Billy Jr also runs The Beacon, The Dawson and Coda di Volpe.

“I think they did what I did with my father,” he reflects. “I progressed the farm on from what he had and multiplied the numbers, and my own children took what we had, The Irish Oak, and went up another notch, which is progression the way it should be.

“But the restaurant business is like farming. If you’re not a worker, you’re not going to make it. It’s as simple as that.”

But back to The Irish Oak days for a moment, which is where Billy first became engaged in immigrant rights and reform.

The pub quickly became a hub for the Irish community – particularly those in the construction industry – and Billy recalls the day in 2002 when he was approached by a group of tradesmen who were unable to get driving licenses due to their illegal status, looking for representation.

“They asked me would I help them to get drivers’ licences and I said I would,” he explains, “and we formed the Chicago Celts for Immigration Reform to see what we could do in the State of Illinois for drivers’ licences.”

And while it took almost 12 years, Billy was instrumental in lobbying for the introduction of temporary visitor driving licenses (TVDLs) for the undocumented in 2014, which allows them to drive legally, without fear of being pulled over and deported.

“And since then, 280,000 have been tested and granted licenses,” he says, explaining that as TVDL holders must have valid insurance, it’s a “win-win” for all road users.

But while Billy started by representing the Irish community, he soon realised the power of co-operation with other groups, and went on to become vice-president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

He explains how they were “so close” to achieving immigration reform in both 2007 and 2013, but that with the election of President Trump, “we’re as far away as ever”.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. Who does?” he says, as he explains the day-to-day reality of the undocumented Irish in the US in the midst of such uncertainty.

“You can’t open a bank account, you can’t get a social security number and you can’t go on a plane,” he lists, explaining that heartbreakingly, many people have to watch their parents’ funerals “on Skype” because they can’t risk returning home.

“And you get the criticism: ‘Well, why did they have to go there in the first place?’ Well, they had to go. Most people don’t want to leave their native land,” he continues. “I left by choice; but 99% didn’t.”


Billy himself became an American citizen in 2014, receiving a personal letter of congratulations from President Obama. The following year he was awarded the accolade of Freeman of Galway City, as well as receiving an honorary doctorate from NUI Galway – but he admits that he was “flabbergasted” when he was chosen by Enda Kenny as the first emigrant Senator for the Irish diaspora living overseas.

“It’s just an incredible honour to represent them,” he says.

While reform might be at a standstill Stateside with Trump, he points out that more could be done here to incentivise people to come home. For example, to open up the help-to-buy scheme to returning emigrants, or to recognise no-claims bonuses earned abroad when getting car insurance.

“There should be no impediments for a young family coming home who wants to buy a home, who wants to work and has a job, doesn’t want to live off the State. That’s not what they’re coming home for,” he stresses.

“They want to be an asset to society. We shouldn’t have impediments in their way. We should be making it so easy for them.”

As a founding member of Voting, Billy is also fully supportive of the planned constitutional referendum to allow Irish citizens living abroad the right to vote in the presidential election in 2025 and has called for a worldwide grassroots campaign for a “Yes” vote.

Earlier this year, he also tabled the bill to end the closing of pubs on Good Friday – a bugbear since his Vintners’ days – but diaspora affairs are his focus going forward, as he commutes between Leinster House and the US.

“I’m working harder now at 66 than I was working 10 years ago,” he smiles, as the interview draws to a close. A gallop through 40 years in just over 60 minutes. Next time, we won’t wait so long… CL


Billy Lawless Speech from Launch of Cavan Diaspora Engagement Strategy 2017

Good morning everyone, Minister, Cathaoirleach of Cavan County Council, Councillor Fergal Curtin, Councillors and my colleagues, Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Denis O’Donovan and Senator Diarmuid Wilson.

I would like to commend Cavan County Council for its diaspora engagement strategy which is being launched today. Cavan experienced some of the worst ravages of the famine and resulting emigration from the 1850s onwards. The Irish – and the Cavan diaspora in particular – are widespread, and found in every corner of the globe.

The Cavan diaspora engagement strategy,  seeks to build upon work that is already happening, but will focus the energy of the county’s residents on its successful diaspora members.

The strategy involves a multi-pronged approach of identifying the Cavan diaspora, engaging it and laying the groundwork for projects which will grow as a result of engagement with local and diaspora community members.

We live in an increasingly connected globalised society, but no matter where we go we are always called back, as Irish men and women, to the home place. We are a people rooted in our history, and in the land of our forefathers, and the green fields of Cavan are no different.

Your plan to engage with the Cavan diaspora is not only good policy but timely, and a testament to the outward looking nature of a county whose global links stretch far and wide.

The recent success of the Gathering, which brought so many towns and villages across the length and breadth of Ireland together to celebrate their diaspora, shows quite clearly that the Irish people want a modern and meaningful link to Irish people living abroad. But remember that so many people came home to Ireland for the Gathering, simply because they were invited. An invitation from the home place has such huge resonance for Irish people living overseas. That’s something to consider when developing any diaspora engagement Project.

I would encourage you all to continue thinking big,  but also connect with the marvellous work being undertaken on a national stage with diaspora engagement policy.

First established by Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan and continued on by Minister Joe McHugh, the Government’s commitment to the diaspora has grown from strength to strength.

Indeed, my own appointment as the first emigrant senator with the specific brief of representing the Irish living overseas, speaks volumes of the government continuing focus.

The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade is Chaired by your own, Brendan Smith, T.D., who is very supportive of the undocumented and was in Washington DC in December last, where he met with Senior Cabinet people, including Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Mangement and Budget, who’s own daughter attends Trinity College, Dublin, and other members of The Friends of Ireland Congressmen.

We must also remember though, that engagement is a two-way street and many of our diaspora members wishing to return to Cavan and Ireland in general, are faced with many hurdles and obstacles upon their return. They sometimes find it difficult to establish residency, and secure vehicle car insurance for example. Third level State fees is also a problem for the children returning Irish citizens, who have been away for some time.

We recently had a very successful Civic global Forum in Dublin Castle, which brought together diaspora organisations and representatives from across the world.

The groups discussed a variety of issues but chief among them was insuring a smoother return process for our fellow countrymen, who wish to make Ireland home  again.

I would encourage you in Cavan, to be ahead of the ball curve, and respond to your own diaspora members who wish to take up residence again in this great County.

Again, I would like to congratulate you for your great work and thank you for your continued commitment to diaspora issues.


Undocumented Irish watching with trepidation following Trump’s Executive Order

Press Release 30th January, 2017

On Friday January, 27th 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order that halted refugee resettlement from seven muslim-majority countries for 90 days. The executive order also included legal permanent residents and dual citizens holding a passport from any of the seven countries listed.

The result was confusion and fear among immigrant and refugee communities across the United States and at its major airports. “Yesterday I stood as Senator for the global Irish in solidarity with immigrant and refugee community groups at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport”, said Senator Lawless. Over 5,000 people turned out in an impromptu show of force and defiance to denounce president Trump’s Executive Orders. They were joined by similar protests in New York, Boston, Denver and 33 other airports across the United States.

“America is a nation of laws but it is also a nation of values. It has always been outward-looking and welcoming to immigrants of all faiths and lands,” “These Executive Orders do not reflect the spirit of the American people or the country’s leadership role in the world,” Senator Lawless expressed.

Senator Lawless has called on the Trump Administration to rescind this Executive Order and follow the words of Pope Francis who admonishes us to welcome the stranger and those fleeing suffering or persecution.

Yesterday I joined a young man from the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society in Chicago who’s parents are both green card holders from Iraq, where they had spent 10 years working for American NGOs helping to rebuild a ravaged country. Othman Al Ani’s mother travelled to Egypt recently to visit a son she had not seen for 8 years but as of yesterday she remained trapped in Egypt unable to return home as a result of this ban.

“In this climate the 50,000 Irish undocumented in the United States are watching closely with fear and trepidation for their future. I stand ready to work with the Irish government to represent the interests of our most vulnerable citizens living abroad and I will encourage the Taoiseach to continue to raise this issue at the highest levels of the US government” Senator Lawless confirmed.

UN General Assembly New York

Senator Lawless joined Minster of Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and Minster for the Diaspora Joe McHugh on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 19th in New York City. The government delegation met with Irish community leaders from the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers and the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. The community groups flew in from across the United States to talk about their work with the most vulnerable Irish citizens living in America: namely the elderly and the undocumented.

Pictured left to right: Senator Lawless, Consul General of New York Barbara Jones, Garrett Fitzgerald, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, Ambassador Anne Anderson

Senator Lawless Meets with Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers in New York

Senator Lawless met with the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers in the USA before joining the Minister of Diaspora Joe Mc Hugh and Ambassador Anne Anderson at Ireland House for a meeting with community leaders. Board President, Celine Kenelly, discussed areas of synergy between the government and community groups who serve Irish nationals living in the USA.

Pictured left to right: Ronnie Miller, Breandán Magee, Kathleen Rohan, Paul Finnegan, Siobhan Dennehy, Senator Lawless, Jane Mc Carter, Michael Collins, Aileen Dibra, Celine Kennelly, Leslie Alcock

Illinois Business Immigration Coalition (IBIC) Panel with Republican Leaders

IBIC’s event “Moving Forward Commonsense Immigration Reform 2017” at TechNexus in Chicago on August 10, 2016.

Senator Billy Lawless took part in the Moving Forward Immigration Reform panel hosted by the bipartisan group IBIC in Chicago, Illinois this summer. High profile Republican representatives present included Senator Mark Kirk (IL), and Representatives Dold (IL), and Balard-Diaz (FL). The panelists discussed the need to reform the United States’ immigration system, and the impact on the national economy of inaction. Senator Lawless, himself a co-founder of IBIC, asked the panel about the Republican strategy for immigration reform after the November elections.

The Congressmen and the Senator agreed on the need for compromise and common sense solutions to fix a broken immigration system that in the long run is hurting businesses, dividing families and adversely affecting the economy. Pundits agree that over 90% of all congressmen and senators in the US Congress support comprehensive immigration reform.